Intelligent Debate: the ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ Report

Ivan Wadeson, Executive Director of The Audience Agency responds to ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’: A contribution to the debate  on national policy for  the arts and culture in England.

Healthy debates about the state and future of public support for the arts should always be welcomed. Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell provide an intelligent and reasoned analysis in today’s ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital’ offered as ‘a contribution’ to the debate on public investment. Let’s hope the ensuing debate stays as intelligent and reasoned.

Participation is increasing (78% of the English adult population engage at least once a year with the arts) and high-profile success stories such as War Horse or the opening of The Hepworth are becoming common-place in the mainstream media. It would be unfortunate, if not potentially disastrous, for the arts world to engage in some intemperate in-fighting or divide along North vs South lines. The most serious loss here could be the good-will and support of the tax-payers and National Lottery players who provide this substantial public investment.

Stark et al provide a positive example of ‘rebalancing’: a National Investment Programme for cultural production outside London. Their ambition for a ‘polycentric’ and connected ecology that ‘irrigates not drains’ from the capital city is on the face of it one to be supported and celebrated. The next stage of their work makes this even more explicit: “We will argue that the presence of local facilities of real quality to allow widespread engagement with the arts, whether people are participants or audience members, is of ever greater importance for individual and communal wellbeing as digital connectivity becomes more ubiquitous, life expectancy grows and patterns of demography, work, learning and leisure transform”. Whilst the debate is stimulated (and reported upon by the industry and mainstream media) as responsible members of the cultural sector let’s not only keep the debate intelligent, let us ensure we don’t lose sight of those ‘investors’ and supporters we most need to serve. They have a role in this debate too. And if we can realise the positive ambitions of a connected ecology that delivers potentially transformative and widespread engagement, we can all share in the benefits.

2 responses to “Intelligent Debate: the ‘Rebalancing our Cultural Capital’ Report

  1. Dear Ivan

    You are absolutely right to advocate a calm and measured debate. I think your point about keeping an eye on current investors is very valid. I’m afraid we are rather in the lap of the gods though I feel!

    However, in terms of the participation data I’m not sure where that helps the discussion at the moment with only a regionally accurate picture of participation at best, certainly not a baseline at local levels telling us how the extraordinary range of facilities and resources have impacted upon London residents participation rates for example. If there is other work going on which helps the Arts Council measure the quantative impact of its investment it would be great to hear about it. I’ve already expressed to one of the authors of this report that it would be a very valuable move to increase the reach of the Taking Part research so as to get data down to local authority District level. Then we can have an informed debate and measure on an ongoing basis whether we are making progress. I wonder what you think? Ofcourse it is hugely expensive. I’m not entirely cognisent exactly how much it would cost but in terms of the figures we’re talking within this debate in order to balance the resources on the whole it would help to ratify and therefore calm the debate. Why is it that only the large scale private sector value the need for very thorough performance management investment? I’m not sure it’s just about how much money they have, perhaps it’s WHY they’ve achieved their profits in the first place. They invest to save and understand their customers.

    The main issue is unfortunately about what there is unfortunately no debate about….last years figures when combining tax payers funds and the lottery all distributed by Arts Council England amount to contributing £86 php in London compared with £8 php in the rest of the country. A ratio of circa 10 to 1. Then if we look at whether this a generic capital city versus the regions issue in other countries we discover it is not. London’s relationship with the rest of England is quite distinct in comparison. This rift has been developing since the 16th Century and we really need to move on. The Royal Family doesn’t get to say whether a regional 17th or 18th century playhouse with a Royal Mark on its letter head is “legitimately” allowed to perform Shakespeare anymore.

    When we first met whilst deconstructing an Audience Development agency we took the first steps towards making this rift wider I feel.

    Looking forward to an excellent debate

    Jonathan Cochrane

  2. A lot of – good – points Jonathan!

    Taking them in turn:

    I agree about the importance of participation data and our first priority here at The Audience Agency is to add our weight to the campaign to ensure Taking Part continues beyond 2015. More localised data would certainly be welcomed too but that has to follow securing national participation data. Within the Audience Finder project, next Spring we will be making available new profiling tools and data that will work at the local levels you suggest – and these should make an immediate difference to organisations looking to assess local impact and identify those not currently engaged.

    Why doesn’t the arts have thorough performance management data and investment?! We could be here on this one a long time if I tried to answer fully! Instead two potentially useful resources, one strategic, one more tactical. The NESTA report ‘Counting What Counts’ is not simply about big data but makes a compelling plea for proper data-driven decision-making in the arts (in line with other industries and sectors). Indispensible reading for sceptics and converts. And closer to home, our tool-kit on KPIs for audiences ( is designed to help cultural organisations create meaningful and useful measures – for the organisation itself not just their funder. Could adopting practices and advice from both, start to make headway into the current situation?

    And then the figures. The imbalance is undeniable. Hence my initial reaction was asking for a debate rather than pitchforks and torches. Luckily it appears that very few people have publicly initiated a slanging match over the topic whatever private anger remains. And Peter Bazalgette has asked for Arts Council of England to be judged on this “in two years’ time” which is a very short time indeed to affect change so maybe there will be some swift ‘re-balancing’? If you didn’t see it, this action was suggested by Adrian Lochhead on the Cultural Initiative website earlier this year – a redeployment of ACE funding away from one or two of the largest recipients to support the grass roots . Can you see this happening? I can’t. Hence I think the National Investment Programme proposed by Stark et al might be a more achievable proposal.

    One thing is certain, the genie is out of the bottle. And despite this, isn’t it good to be discussing increasing investment in culture per head of population? As well as making the case for re-balancing investment, there’s also a responsibility for all of us in the sector to drive and deliver better engagement practice locally. And then measure it. So maybe I do need to check on those costs for Taking Part extending down to district level…

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